Valiant Hearts: Addressing the Moral Dilemma of Historical War Video Games

Curator's Note

The video game Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft Montpellier, 2014) immerses players in the drama of World War I France in order to tell a gripping story and act as an interactive history lesson. The moral question at the center of Valiant Hearts is the same that arises from games such as Call of Duty: how does a game portray the grotesque human behaviors in war in an ethical way? While first-person shooter war games like Call of Duty or Battlefield present historical wars through the lens of players’ power fantasies, Valiant Hearts relies on an aesthetic built on empathy and complexity.

First, the game eschews a first-person perspective that empowers the player and instead utilizes a third-person perspective to invite empathy for its four main characters. Second, through emotive music that flows between melodic piano melodies and booming orchestral pieces—including Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5—the game aims to induce a sense of terrible awe at the grotesque spectacle of war. Third, the visual design of the levels and characters rely on an illustrated look, almost as if they were taken from a story book. The strong reliance on line and color contrasts with the tragedies taking place on the screen as a way to emphasize those tragedies. Fourth, the story of Valiant Hearts places the characters at odds with the motivations of the war taking place around them. The characters rebel against military authority, leading to arrests, trials, captures, escapes, and, at the story’s climax, the court martial and execution of a primary character. The game grounds these four aesthetic choices by inundating players with historical descriptions—written in collaboration with Mission Centenaire 14-18 and Apocalypse: 10 Lives—of levels, items, and characters.

Valiant Hearts is not a perfect game, nor is it perfectly moral: it tends to romanticize history to enhance the story’s main beats. But the manner with which it addresses World War I contrasts against the juvenile approach often taken by first-person shooter war video games. As I’ve previously written, one of the most power tools games possess is the ability to generate an embodied empathy with players, a tool too often used at the service of power fantasies. By contrast, Valiant Hearts promotes empathy with historical context and subtlety, two elements that today’s political climate sorely lacks.

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